On the eve of his 90th birthday, one of the most influential writers of his generation talks about migration, Brexit, growing old and his fondness for texting
On 5 November, John Berger will turn 90. As I travel to Paris to meet him, I carry a bagful of books. There are recently published art historical writings, Portraits, and, to coincide with his 90th birthday, Landscapes (judiciously selected by Tom Overton for Verso), a fascinating series of encounters with the thinkers who have mattered to Berger, from Brecht and Walter Benjamin to Rosa Luxemburg. A marvellous miscellany of more recent work, Confabulations, has just been published by Penguin, and A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger(including tributes from Ali Smith, Sally Potter and Julie Christie) is coming soon from Zed books.
The homage continues on film in The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, shot during his late 80s a collage of informal conversation and political discussion, with offerings by Tilda Swinton, the writer and producer Colin MacCabe and others. It was shot in the hamlet in Haute-Savoie, in the French Alps, where Berger lived for more than 40 years. These jostling admirers show not only that the man is greatly loved, but an intellectual indebtedness behind the wish to say thank you. Critic, novelist, poet, dramatist, artist, commentator and, above all, storyteller Berger was described by Susan Sontag as peerless in his ability to make attentiveness to the sensual world meet imperatives of conscience. His book Ways of Seeing, and the 1972 BBC television series based on it, changed the way at least two generations responded to art. And his writing since then especially about migration has changed the way many of us see the world.
Berger now lives in Antony, a suburb seven miles outside Paris, where he stays with his old friend Nella Bielski, an actor and writer who grew up in the Soviet Union. They open the door together, and as we sit down to lunch, she turns to me and says: The thing you have to understand about John is that he is not interested in talking about himself. While the chorus of approval gets louder on this side of the Channel, he is, unlikely as this might sound, barely aware of any fuss brewing. When I produce a proof of A Jar of Wild Flowers, he turns it over in his hands in delighted surprise. That is a drawing by Melina, he exclaims, surveying the flowers with spindly stems on the cover, my granddaughter. He gets up from the table and returns with an oil portrait, the size of a sheet of A4 paper. It is of an ageless face and yet Melina is only 13. (Berger has three children Katya, Jacob and Yves and five grandchildren.) He props it next to us and we look at her, as if she had joined us for lunch. If you ask me who I am, Berger says, Id like to see myself through her eyes, in the way she looks at me. Her stare is disconcertingly level. She looks, we agree, as if she knows more than she could possibly know or have seen.